Women computer science grads: The bump before the decline

1986 was a good year for women in IT. In may of that year, 15,129 female students graduated with a bachelor's degree in computer science in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Education. Unfortunately, that was the high water mark -- and the beginning of a precipitous decline.

This historical trend may help to explain why the bench of women IT professionals isn't as deep as it could be today. But why did women's interest in IT degrees surge in the '80s, only to wane again over the next 25 years?

By 1996, just a decade after hitting that all-time high, the number of female CS graduates had dropped by more than half, to just 6,749.

Female CS bachelor's degrees by year

Then the situation appeared to begin correcting itself, with the number of women CS graduates gradually rising to a high of 15,483 by 2003, slightly exceeding the 1986 number. But there was a catch. While the trend of decline and revival tracked with the overall numbers of CS graduates over the same time period,


The gains by women actually weren't keeping up with the overall increase in the population of CS grads. More men were filling those seats than women. As a share of all CS bachelor's degrees granted that year, females had slipped almost 10 points, from 37% in 1984/1985 to 27% in 2003. The overall trendline was clearly downward, as seen below.

CS bachelor's degrees granted by sex

From 2004 to 2011, female CS graduation rates rapidly lost ground both in terms of the actual number of graduates and in relative percentage terms. In 2011, the latest year for which the DoE numbers are available, just 7,594 of the 39,589 CS bachelor's degrees awarded went to women. And for the last four years (2008-2011) the proportion of women CS graduates seems to have bottomed out  at 18% - the lowest ratio since 1974. Meanwhile, decades later on the other end of the career spectrum, the number of women CIOs today sits at a paltry 12%, according to Boardroom Insider.

Women have done slightly better in pursuing graduate-level CS degrees. In doctoral programs women have made slow, steady progress, earning one in five degrees in 2011.

CS Doctor's Degrees Granted by Sex

On the other hand, the percentage of CS master's degrees granted to women peaked in 2004 at 34% but by 2011 that number had dropped to 28%.

CS Master's Degrees Granted by Sex

There's been much debate as to why the relative number of female CS graduates has fallen. Everyone has their own opinion as to the real reason why there aren't more women moving into IT careers. And in 2010, The American Association of University Women released its “Why So Few?” study, which placed the blame in part on social pressures and attitudes starting in high school.

But it's perplexing to make sense of some theories when one looks at the timeline. If social pressures and cultural attitudes were to blame, one would think the numbers would have been consistently low. On the other hand, if social attitudes had changed for the better over the last four decades, one would expect to see a gradual improvement over time. The same applies to changes in the market, such as negative perceptions of IT careers as outsourcing took hold in the '90s and '00s. The numbers also don't track with the unemployment rate, and even if they did, again, one would expect both men and women to be affected evenly.

So why did the relative number of women choosing computer science as a baccelaureate major rise so sharply between 1971 and 1986, only to stall and decline so steadily and steeply over the next 25 years? What accounts for the bump?

With the percentage of women graduates in computer science at a 39-year low it's a question that still lacks a definitive answer. If educators and guidance counselors knew what brought more women into IT in the early '80s, perhaps the CS degree could finally get its mojo back.

Source:  U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), "Degrees and Other Formal Awards Conferred"

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